Friday, August 25, 2006

The Eyes Have It

Now, here’s a proposal I can really get behind. Writing today in Salon, infamous novelist James Frey (yeah, the same guy whose supposedly “factual memoir” led to headlines such as “A Million Little Lies”--but we won’t hold that against him at the moment) remarks that his fondest wish for television’s future would be to see the return of classic-style private-eye series:
When I was growing up, I loved private investigator shows like “The Rockford Files,” “[Mike] Hammer” and “Magnum, P.I.” They all followed a fairly simple formula: beautiful woman arrives with case, P.I. takes case against his better judgment, P.I. starts working on case while driving a bad-ass car, case proves dangerous and troublesome and P.I. gets knocked out at least once, P.I. solves case at the last minute due to stunning combination of brain and brawn, P.I. sleeps with beautiful, and now grateful, woman who brought him the case. It’s a perfect formula for an hourlong show. You know what you’re getting each week, and you watch because you love the main character.

I miss good P.I. shows. There aren’t any on anymore. “
Monk,” which is on the USA Network, is the closest thing, but Monk is an obsessive/compulsive weenie. The show is violence-free, sex-free, humorless and boring. There are no car chases, no explosions, no boobs. Monk mumbles, winks and twitches, his sidekick follows him around explaining his brilliance and weirdness. It’s an insult to the genre. Every time I come across it, I turn the channel as fast as my thumb allows.

I want to see a new P.I. show. I think the time has come. ...

The one I want to see takes advantage of the license creators of TV shows are given in today’s world. The violence will be bigger and louder, the women dirtier and in smaller outfits, the hero will smoke, spit and swear.
[Mickey] Spillane did it in words 50 years ago, someone should be able to do it with sound and images now. The show would have a flawed, muscle car-driving, antihero P.I. He would get drunk, drive fast, kick ass, solve cases and charm the ladies. Tonally, it would be something like Todd Phillips or Quentin Tarantino, with humor and irony balancing the sex and violence. It would have all the staples of the genre: a beautiful woman, now gone, who broke the P.I.’s heart in the past, a bumbling sidekick, a cop who is an ally, a higher-ranking cop who is an enemy. There will also, of course, be the one case that got away, and that the P.I. is constantly thinking about and trying to put to rest.
I couldn’t have said all that better myself (which I may want to do someday, when nobody’s watching). American television these days has fallen into a seemingly endless loop of scientific crime shows (CSI and its clones, Crossing Jordan, Bones, etc.), police/FBI procedurals (NUMB3RS, Criminal Minds, and the rest) and cop/courtroom dramas (the Law & Order clones, Shark, etc.), with only a few modestly distinctive shows, such as this fall’s Raines, in which Jeff Goldblum plays an eccentric Los Angeles police detective who communicates with dead victims in order to solve crimes (think The Ghost Whisperer meets Law & Order: Criminal Intent). When were we last treated to a good, old-fashioned, weekly private-eye series, anyway? It might have been the technologically stylish but quite disappointing Eyes (2005), with Tim Daly. And before that, maybe Snoops (2002), which was worth watching only for the interplay between curvaceous Gina Gershon and uptight Paula Marshall. Buddy Faro (1998), with the always watchable Dennis Farina, purported to be a P.I. series, but it was really a comedy, and Nero Wolfe (2001-2002), while it was certainly a cut above some previous presentations of Rex Stout’s characters, buried its appeal as a detective yarn under period color and melodrama. Sadly, the closest things we have anymore to private-eye series are the teen mystery Veronica Mars, the aforementioned Monk, and its USA Network companion show, Psych (which, despite its familiar broadcast billing, is not a real detective series--at least not in my book).

Gone, as Frey observes, are the golden days of Rockford, Mannix, Spenser: For Hire, Harry O, Banyon, Private Eye, Switch, City of Angels, and Barnaby Jones. Even programs such as Moonlighting, Remington Steele, Crazy Like a Fox, and Simon & Simon, which combined criminal investigation with comedic interplay, were a cut above the pallid private-eye programs we’re being offered these days. Heck, many of the crime-fiction shows that didn’t go beyond pilot films in the 1970s--Jarrett (with Glenn Ford), Partners in Crime (with Lee Grant and Lou Antonio), The Adventures of Nick Carter (starring Robert Conrad), and Delaney (with Ed Lauter playing a 1940s hotel dick), to name just a handful--were of Emmy-winning caliber, compared with the disjointed Psych.

The only fortunate thing here, of course, is that U.S. TV programming is cyclical. Viewers tire of one thing, then go on to something new, but eventually wind up wanting again what they’ve been without for a while. Americans have gone through at least two periods of P.I. dominance of the small screen. The first came in the late 1950s/early ’60s, when the networks were rampant with such shows as 77 Sunset Strip, Peter Gunn, Richard Diamond, Private Eye, and an early series built around Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (this one starring actor Philip Carey). By October 1959, the glut of private eyes on television was so obvious, that Time magazine devoted one of its covers to the subject (reproduced above). The second, and more memorable, renaissance of the gumshoe came in the 1970s, when Rockford and Harry O were joined by considerably less memorable shows such as Longstreet, Matt Helm, Tenafly, Griff, Vega$, Richie Brockleman, Private Eye, Shaft, and The Duke.

Could Frey’s (and my) wish for a revival of the TV private eye come true? Undoubtedly. Once the present spate of “reality”-programs, forensic series, and concept serials centered around sleek-bodied, sexually active teens has finally run its oh-so-tedious course, you can almost guarantee that TV producers too young to have experienced the last flowering of the sleuth craze will think themselves geniuses for introducing their audiences to flawed, muscle car-driving, antihero P.I.s who get drunk, drive fast, kick ass, solve cases, and charm the ladies.

I look forward to it. In a million little ways.

READ MORE:The 10 Coolest TV Private Eyes” (The Crime Scenesters).

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